What chances do young adult care leavers have in education and work?

15 April 2014

When I was at school, aged 17, trying to make decisions about going on to university or leaving and finding work, there was little offered in the way of careers advice or support, and times were much more buoyant then. The only careers advice I can remember was given by an independent agency which required me to undertake a psycho analytical questionnaire to decide which career I would be best suited to. I came out even more dazed and confused and not sure I wanted to take up nursing anyway. I don’t mind admitting that I didn’t find the right kind of work for me until I was 40 and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

Existing support in terms of information, advice and guidance about learning and/or work for young people leaving education has diminished. Massive reductions in the Connexions service – which where it does exist, only supports the most disadvantaged/ NEET young people – has greatly reduced the amount of specialised and tailored support available for young people.  It will be interesting to see how the new adult careers service, also serving young adults, manages this. Finding work becomes even more challenging when the number of jobs suitable for young people has decreased and employers are claiming that young people don’t have the necessary skills they are looking for.

So what chance do young adults leaving care have in making decisions about learning and work?  Many care leavers have other much more pressing issues at 18, such as living arrangements and financial stability. Fear of loneliness, being placed in unsuitable accommodation, a lack of emotional maturity (commonly exacerbated by difficult life experiences and frequent changes in carers and schools) and feeling unable to cope, mean that making decisions about getting into education or work are not always an immediate priority.

For young people leaving care at 18, the support of the local authority as a ‘good enough’ parent is vital to making choices about learning and/or work. This support comes in the form of a Personal Adviser (or 18+ worker) and/or a social worker. The ‘contract’ that says the local authority will provide that support, is known as a Pathway Plan (usually prepared at 16/17). Yet many of the young people we are talking to don’t recognise a Pathway Plan as a ‘contract’ which will legally uphold their rights. Instead, many have told us that they’re not sure they have a copy of their Pathway Plan, they didn’t find it helpful or understandable and that they can’t even remember the conversation about education and work! When asked what could have helped, they often say they needed emotional support more than anything, which wasn’t forthcoming, and that support in terms of education and/or work could have been provided earlier.

Current statutory rulings do and don’t help. A care leaver who takes up and stays in education before they are 21, is entitled to receive support from a Personal Adviser up to the age of 25.  Indeed, if plans for further learning were included in their final Pathway Plan on leaving care, they can return to the local authority for support at a later date, should they decide to take up learning before they are 25.

Whilst this is welcome, take up has been slow as many young people who have recently left care are not aware of this ruling. Additionally, a care leaver who is not in education at 21 will no longer receive the support of a Personal Adviser. Without this support it is likely that their chances of getting into education and/or work will be significantly reduced.  Also, whilst the theory is fairly sound, it doesn’t take into account that many care leavers need the door to be kept open for much longer, to provide them with a more realistic chance to get into learning and/or work, giving them time to settle, both physically and emotionally.

Through our research we will be able to make some recommendations to the government about how this support can be provided more consistently and with the care leaver at the centre of all decisions. If you are a care leaver or a Personal Adviser employed by a local authority, or agency working in partnership with a local authority, and would like to contribute to our research, please contact me at linda.dixon@niace.org.uk